Chicago Presbyterians Split on Divestment

Presbyterians in Chicago agreed that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should engage in the Israel-Palestine debate through corporate investment strategies, but remained divided on whether the denomination should push for divestment.

Meeting for their annual General Assembly on Tuesday, delegates said corporate engagement, such as shareholder resolutions and publicity campaigns, would be a good way to bring peace to the Middle East. However, they could not agree on whether divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories should be used as one of the instruments in the conversation.

"Divestment is an inappropriate act of coercion in this circumstance," said the Rev. Brian Paulson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It's been a distraction from our main objective also, which is justice and peace in Israel and Palestine and a two-state solution. In this context, divestment carries a coercive tone, which is not true to the character of the kind of witness we are called to bear in the face of power."

Meanwhile, Don Wagner, a member of the Chicago Presbytery’s Middle East Task Force, said divestment brings “teeth” to possible corporate engagement policies.

"It gives them just a little bit more teeth in saying there is some accountability here," said Wagner, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. "I really think this is a symbolic, moral and ethical statement."

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has come under fire from U.S.-based Jewish groups since it passed a policy calling for possible divestment in 2004.

Opponents of divestment say such a policy unfairly punishes singling out Israel for the blame and fear that it may have a snowballing effect on other American mainline churches. The denomination has already selected five companies it may divest from in coming years. In total, the denomination is estimated to hold some $60 million in stock from those companies.

Aside from divestment, the Presbytery of Chicago has specifically come under fierce criticism by Jewish groups for an unofficial meeting its officials held with members of an anti-Israeli terrorist group last month.

The Chicago Presbytery will revisit the question of divestment at its meeting in February.